The Tahltan Nation call the area Klappan, and it has been the site of protests by aboriginal elders who say mining will threaten the spiritual, cultural and wilderness values of the region, which includes the confluence of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said Monday the Klappan Coal Licence Deferral Area Order is a temporary measure that will allow the government, the Tahltan and the mining industry time to negotiate a management agreement for the area.
The deferral order impacts 62 coal licence applications, but existing area coal tenures and authorizations, including the Fortune Minerals' Arctos project, are not impacted, he said.
Fortune Minerals, of London, Ont., announced last fall that it was pausing exploratory work for an open-pit coal mine in the Klappan, following an earlier decision by Shell Canada to give up its rights to explore and drill for coal-bed methane gas.
"We bought ourselves a year where we can have, I hope, some in-depth discussions with the Tahltan about what they think is necessary," Bennett said. "They don't want mining in the Klappan, that's their position. So we're going to have to spend some time and some effort this year and determine whether that's something that can't change, won't change, in which case we're going to have to come up with some kind of solution."
Tahltan central council president Annita McPhee said the deferral order provides more time for the Tahltan to convince the government and industry that the area must remain pristine.
Rugged mountains border the vast alpine valley where the three rivers cut meandering paths through the high-altitude marshland as they become sheer forces of nature that include canyons, rapids and critical salmon habitat.
Known for their abundant salmon runs and prime habitat for grizzly, wolf, caribou and moose, the three rivers and the 4,000-square-kilometre area are deeply tied to the Tahltan and Iskut people of the area, McPhee said.
"It's positive because it gives us some temporary relief," McPhee said. "It's a first step toward the long journey of protecting the Klappan. As Tahltan people, we're going to continue to resist any industrial development like the Arctos project that continues to threaten our land and our culture."
Bennett said the government is looking for some form of management agreement for the area. But he said whatever deal is reached after a year, the Arctos plan for an open-pit coal mine in the Klappan is still on the books as potentially proceeding in the future.
"I don't want to speculate on what the final model of management will look like there," Bennett said. "We're not contemplating a park. I can tell you that, but other than that the management model could be a number of different things and the boundaries for it could be different as well."
Bennett said he is aware that the Tahltan aboriginals have been arrested in the past and have vigorously voiced their opposition to mining proposals. Last fall, he met with Tahltan protesters who built a camp near the proposed Arctos development.
The Klappan area is about 400 kilometres north of Smithers and includes few inhabited communities other than Telegraph Creek and Dease Lake.
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